Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Indigenous dancers & their traditional instruments

An Owl Dancer performs in Ajijic. Owls were important symbolic creatures in the pre-hispanic world. They are depicted in various murals and pottery paintings found at the great city of Teotihuacan (100 AD - 650 AD). In addition, they appear in the mythology of both the Maya and the Mexica (Aztecs). Several months ago, Carole and I attended a performance by a visiting troupe of indigenous dancers held at the Auditorio de la Ribera here in Ajijic. The music for the dancers was played on reproductions of a variety of Aztec instruments. 

This kind of drum is called an huehuetl. The word is from Nahuatl, the language of the Mexica. They shared this tongue with many of the other nomadic groups who migrated from the great deserts of the north into the Valley of Mexico after the fall of Teotihuacan. In Nahuatl, huehue means "very old", or "venerable" and therefore of great importance. The huehuetl was considered so important that its name became synonymous for gatherings of musicians, whatever the instrument they played. These drums were usually made from the wood of the ahuehuete, a kind of cypress sometimes called a "drum tree". While huehuetls were sometimes made from clay or even precious metals, not many of those types survived the Conquest. The sides of the drums contain mystical symbols and the hollow wooden cylinders are supported by decoratively carved tripods. The bottoms of the drum cylinders are open, but the tops are covered by tightly stretched animal skins. These are struck with the fingers to produce several different tones according to how near or far from the center the fingers hit.

The Owl Dancer's piercing eyes stare out from under his extraordinary headdress. The owl eyes of his costume have a deep significance. The rain god Tlaloc was one of the most important mythical figures of the ancient world. He is nearly always depicted with rings around his eyes. These are often described by archaeologists as "goggles", but some of them believe the rings are imitations of owl eyes. Tlaloc was the only one of the massive array of Aztec gods who was allowed to share equal billing with Huitzilopochtli, the god of the sun and war. Together, their shrines occupied the top of the Templo Mayor, the great pyramid in Tenochtilan (now Mexico City) which was the center of the Aztec universe.

Tlalpanhuehuetl, or standing drum. On top of the drum, you can see two other instruments: a gourd rattle and a conch shell. While huehuetl drummers played sitting down, those using a tlalpanhuehuetl stood. Carved on the top and bottom sides of the drum are an eagle and the sun, both symbols of Huitzilopochtli. He moved across the sky during the day, keeping the darkness at bay and providing the light and warmth that allowed the crops to grow. According to Mexica beliefs, Huitzilopochtli had to be fed a constant diet of human blood in order to gain the strength to return each morning and thus keep the world intact. This fitted nicely with the Mexica's own appetite for warfare. Their conquests resulted in Mesoamerica's greatest and most powerful empire, at least until its destruction by the Spanish. In addition to wars of conquest, the Mexica also fought what they called "Flowery Wars." These conflicts were staged on a regular basis solely to capture enemy soldiers who could be sacrificed on Huitzilopochtli's altar atop the Templo Mayor. Thousands had their living hearts ripped out while the last sound they heard was the thunderous drumming of huehuetls and tlalpanhuehuetls.

Skull Dancer wearing chachayotes, which are anklets of ayayote nut shells filled with pellets. Even one dancer wearing chachayotes creates a rythmic noise of considerable volume. Imagine hundreds, or even thousands, dancing in the great plaza in front of the Templo Mayor. In addition to his chachayotes and penacho de plumas (feathered headdress), he wears a loincloth with the pattern of a jaguar's fur. Jaguars were another animal considered sacred throughout Mesoamerica. They are extremely powerful night hunters and the ancients believed that these qualities connected them to the forces of darkness and death. The two most important military cults of the Mexica (and the Toltecs before them) were the Eagle and the Jaguar warriors who dressed in costumes imitative of their totem creatures.

These two horizontal drums are called teponaztli. The drummers were usually seated while playing this instrument. However, during warfare, these drums were sometimes worn hanging at the waist from a neck cord. There are accounts of Mexica kings leading their warriors into battle while playing a teponaztli. Each hollowed-out log has cuts along its length and across the middle, made in the shape of an "H". These cuts create two keys which are played with rubber-tipped sticks. The keys might be cut to different lengths or thicknesses to create different tones. Sometimes the end or bottom of the instrument was open to increase the volume. The teponaztli were often used to accompany huehuetls. In addition to warfare, the drums were often used to accompany poetry and singing.

The Skull Dancer's head gear includes a skull mask framed by an extravagant penacho. The artistic representation of skulls, or the ritual use of actual human skulls themselves, was common in pre-hispanic civilizations. The ancients viewed death as another plane of existence, not oblivion. Further, they saw death as inextricably connected to life, i.e. another expression of the duality of the universe which includes day vs night, male vs female, cold vs hot, etc.

Turtle-shell drums were called ayotl or sometimes ayocacallotl. The use of the ayotl was generally restricted to funerals. Early colonial historians recorded that they were played during death rites for a Tarascan king. At the end of the ceremony, the dead ruler's top officials and servants were clubbed to death in order to accompany their leader into the afterlife. Behind the ayotl are several pieces of stone also used as musical instruments. These lithophones, called tehuehuetl, are  made from volcanic stone slabs. The tehuehuetl are beaten with stone spheres to create a kind of hollow ringing sound.

A pair of rattlesnakes twine themselves around five skulls in this unidentified instrument. As best as I can figure, this resembles the "rainsticks" found in Central and South America, Southeast Asia, Australia, and Africa. Such instruments are given the name because they are hollow and filled with pebbles or seeds. When they are upended, the pellets inside cascade down the length of the interior. The resulting sound resembles falling rain striking leaves in the forest. The purpose of a rainstick is to encourage rain. It is possible, but not confirmed, that rainsticks may have made their way from Central or South America to the Aztec Empire.

The musicians and dancers included children, some quite young. The inclusion of children is a means of keeping these traditions alive. Some of the instruments I have been describing can be seen in use above. On the left, are three of the tlalpanhuehuetls, one played by the Skull Dancer. On the right, two young musicians play tehuehuetls and a teponaztli.

This concludes my posting. I hope you have enjoyed the images and stories behind these ancient instruments. If you liked this posting, I hope you will leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Monday, July 4, 2016

Costa Rica Part 11: Puntarenas Coast & Manuel Antonio National Park

A Central American Squirrel Monkey clambers among the trees in Quepos. As our bus eased through the small resort town's thick traffic, the curious monkey followed along, scampering from tree to tree to observe us. The Squirrel Monkey (Saimiri oerstedii) is one of the several species of monkey native to Costa Rica. It can only be found along the country's central and southern Pacific Coasts and the coast of northern Panamá. This species of monkey is omnivorous and lives in groups of 20-75 individuals. Its population has declined since the 1970s due to deforestation and capture for sale as a pet. Efforts at conservation have improved the Squirrel Monkey's situation, although it is still listed as "vulnerable". The last leg of our Costa Rica tour before returning to San José took us along the coast of Puntarenas Province to the seaside pueblo of Quepos. One of the country's most famous wildlife preserves, Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio, adjoins the town. For a Google map of this section of Costa Rica, click here.

The coast of Puntarenas

The province of Puntarenas possesses spectacular beaches, some lined with luxury hotels. The beaches can sometimes be found along broad bays like the one shown above. Other times they lie along small crescent-shaped coves with rocky points at either end. The coastal mountains sometimes drop right down to the sea, but elsewhere they may be set back several miles, providing space for towns and farms.

One of the many luxury hotels fronting the beach along Puntarenas's coast. Tourism is a very large part of the nation's economy. Well-heeled visitors from North America and Europe, as well as elsewhere in Latin America, come every winter to bask in the sunshine. 

Off-shore islands like these dot the coast. Most are uninhabited, but some contain nature preserves and can be visited by boats rented at nearby resort towns.

A Scarlet Macaw munches on wild fruit growing in a tree beside the coast road. There were several of these colorful birds dining in the roadside branches when our bus came by. The driver stopped so we could get some photos. The blissful birds ignored us as they consumed the succulent fruit. The Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) is found along the Caribbean Coast of Mexico and in Central America, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Brazil. Like the Squirrel Monkey, they are threatened by habitat destruction as well as the pet trade. Macaws are monogamous animals and will stay with the same mate for life. Eggs are incubated by the female and the chicks reach adulthood after five years. 

Hotel San Bada, in Quepos is adjacent to the main entrance of Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio.  Hotel San Bada possesses luxurious grounds, including this beautifully landscaped swimming pool. Of all the hotels where our Caravan Tour stopped, this was the only one that was not isolated from the local community. Quepos is a popular beach town, with accommodations ranging from luxury to rustic. Restaurants, bars, and night-spots are plentiful, as are street vendors eager to sell you their handicrafts. Also plentiful are various ecological adventures such as tree-top zip-lining and parasailing.

A para-sailor drifts through a Pacific sunset. This was one of several we observed from the roof-top bar of the hotel. After a long day of traveling the coast, we dropped our luggage in our room and made a bee-line for the bar. A tall, cold, adult beverage was definitely in order.

My long-range zoom lens revealed that one of the parachutes supported a trio of adventurers. I never knew that they could be group experiences. I tried out one of these rides in Cancun, Mexico, years ago. I recall looking down several hundred feet to the ocean below and suddenly realizing that the only things attaching me to the parachute harness were a couple of small metal clips of unknown quality. It was a sobering thought.

Parque Nacional de Manuel Antonio

Stairways, wooden ramps, and bridges wind through the park's jungle. The idea is to allow visitors to enjoy the experience without trampling the flora or fauna. This makes sense given the mobs of people we found thronging most of the pathways. Perhaps it was because our visit coincided with Christmas Week, a popular family vacation time. We couldn't believe there were 75-80 people at the front gate at the 7 AM opening time. When we left the park at mid-day, there were several hundred more lined up, waiting their turn to enter. Fortunately, most folks kept to the main walkways and missed this one, leaving us with a bit of peace and quiet. For a map of Manuel Antonio Park, click here.

A Ceiba tree's broad roots spread out over the jungle floor. The Ceiba was considered holy by pre-hispanic peoples and is still revered by their modern descendants. Although this national park is Costa Rica's smallest, it is one of the most famous. The land area encompasses 1,700 acres, and its ocean protectorate covers 136,000 acres. The land area of Manuel Antonio contains tropical forest, lagoons, mangrove swamps, and white, sandy beaches. 109 species of mammals, as well as 184 of birds, make it one of the most biodiverse parks in the world.

A female Golden Orb Spider tends its web, hoping for the arrival of a meal.  The Golden Orbs (Nephila clavipes) are quite amazing creatures. They are famous for their webs, the strands of which are five times stronger than steel and more flexible than nylon. The web is so tough and resilient that if one could be built in the right proportions, it could catch an airliner in mid-flight! In addition, the spiders can change the color of the web to match the background, making it invisible to prey. There is a huge disparity in size between the large female and the much smaller male. In fact, the male is so much smaller that it can inseminate the female without her even noticing. Males of this species sometimes become free-loaders. Their small size allows them to live in the web and eat the prey without the female catching on. I suspect some feminists out there are probably already saying "just like a man!"

The remarkably spiky bark of this tree attracted my attention.  Pejibaye palms (Bactris gasipaes) grow wild in the park but are cultivated elsewhere for their fruit and the edible heart of the trunk. The tree is also known as a peach palm for its reddish/orange fruit. It is found in the hot, humid, areas of Latin America, including Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil. In the 1920s, it was introduced into the US, the Philippines, and India. 

This peach palm fruit is still green. The fruit may grow in clusters as large as 50-300. Some may weigh up to 11.4 kg (25 lbs). The spiny trunk of the tree makes climbing it nearly impossible so the fruit is harvested using long-handled poles with cutters at the end. Pejibaye fruit contain carotene, phosphorus and ascorbic acid as well as 1500 times the recommended daily dosage of Vitamin A. It must be cooked 1-3 hours before it can be eaten.

A Two-toed Sloth hangs lazily in the branches. This upside down posture is typical of the animal. Oddly, while they can fairly easily be spotted in the forest, it is very difficult to get a photograph of theis faces. Perhaps they are just shy. The formal name of this sloth is Choloepus hoffmanni.  It has two toes on the front legs, but three toes on the back ones. That is what differentiates this species from its cousin, the Three-toed Sloth, which has three toes all around. Sloths eat only leaves, which are generally a low-nutrient food and such a diet results in lethargy. Hence, the name.

Playa de Manuel Antonio is one of several lovely beaches along the park's shoreline. This relatively small cove is very popular with sunbathers, swimmers, and picnickers. Troops of monkeys regularly visit the shore, looking for a handout. These animals are accustomed to human contact and have become notorious for stealing food and other items from unguarded daypacks and purses.

A vulture contemplates the sunset from a perch near our hotel. The day after our visit to Manuel Antonio, we headed back to San José, the capital. We had seen a great deal of Costa Rica in nine days, but by no means everything. There is still much we'd like to see, including some of the reputedly wonderful museums, ancient ruins, and the nation's Caribbean Coast. Maybe next time?

This concludes Part 11 and ends my series on Costa Rica. I hope you have enjoyed sharing the journey with us. If so, please leave any thoughts or questions in Comments section below or email us directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim